This is exactly why I always lose at blackjack. I am terrible at doing what the percentages tell me to.
Game Theory Manifesto: A Coach's Guide to Using Timeouts and Other Key Decisions
Nothing is more frustrating for a football fan (especially a math/logic centered one) than to see coaches blow basic strategy elements to the game, many of which are black and white. I can be forgiving on a lot. As a 100-and-nothing-pound Mathlete growing up, I knew I wouldn’t do any better out there on the field but I knew a lot of times I could do better at some of the basic decision making and strategy. Coaches learn a lot about football as they progress through careers, but game-theory type strategy seems to be a common blind spot for many coaches to gain the hidden advantage. Luckily Michigan has a coach that had a pretty sharp first year in this regard, hopefully all the other Zookers out there don’t read this (yeah right) and catch up.
Some of what follows will be backed with hard data from my database, other will be solid and based on strong logic without play data backing (I don’t track timeouts in my database) and some will be things unprovable but backed by 30 years of watching the game from a different vantage point.
Issue 1: How to use your timeouts when you are trailing
Always take your timeouts on defense if there are less than 2-3 minutes left, you are trailing and the opponent is running out the full play clock.
Announcers always like to have have those final timeouts in your pocket for that last drive or to get the kicker out there one last time. Although that is a good to have, saving the time up front is a much better option for end game strategy. If your opponent is working to run out the clock, every timeout you take saves you about 38 seconds. On offense, if you have a reasonably efficient 2 minute offense, each timeout is probably worth 10-15 seconds. One timeout on defense is as valuable as 2-3 on offense. The other advantage you have on offense is you are in control of the play, you can restrict your plays to passing, sidelines and first down distance plays that assist in stopping the clock.
A final note on defensive timeouts, never take them immediately after the offense gains a first down. The clock stops to reset the ball and you will have three more opportunities to stop it later. Taking it after the first down is good for about 25 seconds, waiting will give you nearly 15 seconds more savings.
Issue 2: Should you ever use them when you are ahead
If the opponent is in the red zone pressing for a tying or go-ahead score, don’t be afraid to use your timeouts to ensure a chance to retake the lead.
Once the opponent is inside the 20 (and definitely inside the 10) in the final two minutes, losing the lead is a near certainty (especially if a field goal will do the job). If the opponent is drained or nearly drained of timeouts, all the better for you to use yours. They won’t be able to stop you from taking a knee if you do get a stop and you will have more time to come back if they do score on you.
The flip side is also true. Even if you are trailing but driving, if the opponent is already in a position to run out the clock if you are stopped, first priority is obviously scoring, but second should be not rushing to be faster because the goal is to make your drive the last drive. If it fails the game is over either way, if it succeeds you want to minimize the opponent's chance to score. Even if you started as a two-minute offense, if you get to the red zone fast enough it can make sense to slow down a bit. It will likely be your last possession no matter what, any time you are saving is for them and not you.
Note, this situation also applies to a tie game.
Issue 3: How to use your timeouts when you are tied
Tread lightly after first and second down but pull the trigger fast after third down.
As Bret Bielema and Bob Stoops found out this year, you have to be very careful on this one. Taking one after first down is the riskiest. At least Bielema took his with a Sparty offense facing a 2nd and 20. With two more plays left a lot can happen, unless the opponent is backed up deep in their own territory, it’s best to not get greedy after first down.
After second down can still be a bit risky, but at this point you have a much better idea on what the opponent is faced with and what their strategy is. The worse shape and more conservative the opponent is, the more a timeout makes sense.
After third down in a tied game is usually a straightforward decision. Unless their is a chance the other team will attempt a fourth down conversion, use the timeout right away, it’s your last chance to maximize the value of that timeout.
Issue 4: How soon can you take a knee and run out the clock?
Depends on your opponent timeouts,
0 left: 2 minutes and 6 seconds
1 left: 1 minute and 24
2 left: 46 seconds
3 left: 8 seconds
If there are a couple more seconds than this it gets dicey. If you lead by more than 2 points, you can always have your quarterback sprint backwards and run around to burn some time and take a safety if need be.
2 Point Conversions
Rule #1 of 2 point conversions is don’t even think about them until the fourth quarter. No exceptions. Do not chase points, there is too much variability left in the game to give up a point to get to a “nice number” or even worse to “get back” a point from a missed/blocked/botched PAT. Just don’t do it.
Two point conversion rates are hard to get a true number on. The best numbers I can get is somewhere between 40-45% success. This is backed by a limited sample on actual two point conversions and verified by 43% success on 3rd or 4th and goal from the 3.
Situations to go for 2 any time in the fourth quarter (margin before TD is scored):
Down 22: Prior to scoring this you were down 22, 3 touchdown, and 4 PAT points. That can come as 1/1/2 or 0/2/2. Going for two here is the only way to get even but still leave the door open. Make it and its 14, miss and it’s still a two possession game.
Down 15: In the fourth quarter possessions are limited. Forcing the decision early gives you the information on whether its a one or two possession game. Waiting till the second TD can leave you with a false sense that you are playing a one possession game when you have a less than 50% of hitting the 2 point conversion and may be out of time. Going for it after the first score allows you to make more educated timeout, on-side and fourth down decisions. Waiting may make you feel better about it still be a one possession game, but as Brian has said, it’s only a 40% chance of being a one possession game.
Down 14: This is the genius one. Fail and you still have a chance to get it back on the second TD, just as if you kicked it like a risk-averse NFL coach. But if you make it, you are not playing for overtime but the win. Depending on the 2 point conversion odds, this increases your chances of winning by 10-30% (not percentage points, you were down 2 TD in the fourth quarter, your odds are never great). At a 43% success rate this strategy is a 14% improvement of odds. With a good offense at 50% conversion you jump all the way to 29% improvement by going for 2 on the first TD.
Only if there are 2 or fewer possessions left for each team
Down 8, Down 5, Down 1 and Up 6: Same as above, with 3+ possessions left this is probably a no go but with a possession or two each to go. It’s now a one possession game and with very many possessions left there is too much that can happen to risk giving up the point too early.
Only if your opponent has one possession left
Down 2: You hear there’s no difference between 4 and 6 but there is if there are multiple possessions left. Field goals can really mess with this situation; take the point unless the opponent only has one shot left, in which case you might get a little insurance for a missed PAT if you can make yours. Even in this situation I don’t condone going for 2 when you were down 12 to make the deficit 4 or 6. Chances are your opponent is going to be conservative and a field goal is probably the best case scenario for them. Don’t let a FG end your game with an unnecessary risk.
Wanted to break things up a with a little Mgoblog favorite, a chart.
Outcomes from first possession of overtime period.
|Outcome||Win||Loss||Another OT||Win Odds|
|Fail to score||0||32||3||5%|
|Touchdown + PAT||33||4||31||73%|
This data comes from every overtime period from 2007-2011. What you don’t see here is the strong preference this overtime method has for winning the coin flip. There is a lot of talk about the NFL and its 59-60% advantage for the coin flip winner, but in college the coin flip winner holds a solid 56% advantage for getting to go second and knowing what you have to do.
A touchdown on the first possession puts you in great shape. A field goal attempt is OK if necessary, but you better be confident you can make it. Although there is obviously a greater chance of winning with a TD versus a field goal, the odds don’t support a highly aggressive fourth down strategy, especially inside the 10. Even though the temptation is higher close to the goal line, for most teams going for it on 4th and 1 or 2 make sense. Anything beyond that and the best bet is to give the ball to the kicker. Now a great offense or questionable kicking game quickly changes the calculus, but in close, the odds say kick it. Where it is a bit more interesting is on the first set of downs in the game. The odds actually favor a more aggressive 4th down strategy on 4 and 5 or less from the 16-20 on the first set of downs. At this range most college kickers are good but far from automatic; an aggressive play here can pay out.
Another hotly debated overtime question is going for 2 to win after the other team has scored and kicked. 10 out of 44 teams faced with this proposition have gone for it, their record is 4-6, about in line with the 40-45% 2 point conversion expectation. This would seem like a losing proposition but at 45% the odds would be in line with the chances in the next OT since you have to be on offense first. Not really a clear cut answer here, but either way can be justified and the presence of a great offense from either team can quickly make the decision to go for 2 a good one.
Surprise On-Sides Kicks
Do them more.
OK you need more than that? Advanced NFL stats ran the numbers for the NFL and found that success rates for onside kicks are 20% when expected and 60% when not expected. I found a similar spread for college. Out of 663 expected onside kicks in my database, 23% were recovered by the kicking team. Only 146 (about 1 per week) surprise onsides where tried but 64% of those were recovered. The break-even success rate needed for a surprise onside kick is 46%, the market for surprise on-side kicks is definitely undervalued.
Punting In Opponent Territory
One of the many reasons that punting in opponent territory is dumb is that it is usually couched on the assumption that “we’ll pin them deep.” There are two key problems with this assumption. The first is that 36% of punts from opponent territory result in a touchback or never reach the 20, and that’s before any returns are factored in. The second is that it’s pretty tough to actually down it close to the end zone, and unless you are at the 1 or 2, there is no special advantage.
As discussed previously, it is in an offense’s best interest to go super conservative at the 1 or 2. Outside of that it is nearly business as usual. There is only an 8% chance a punt from the opponent's territory is downed at the 1 or 2. It’s over four times more likely to not even pin an opponent inside the 20 than it is to force the offense’s hand by pinning them at the 1 or 2 yard line.
Another problem with an opponent territory punt is that it’s tough to get an even exchange. Punting into the short side of the field limits the best case scenario and assuming you can force a punt from the opponent, gives them a lot of positive variance opportunity. A long bounce going in brings the ball out to the 20, a long bounce kicking out can quickly turn into a 60-yard punt and a total flip of field position.
And of course, you give up a great scoring opportunity punting in opponent territory.
Red Zone Play-Calling
On a first down Red Zone play, teams are more likely to score if it’s a run than a pass if they are at the 8 yard line or closer. Anything between the 9 and the 20 favors a pass on first down. That doesn’t mean that 100% pass is the optimal strategy, just that the play calling should favor the pass (or run inside the 9). For goal to go situations after first down, second down is the ultimate OC’s choice. From anywhere 10 and in on second and goal running and passing have nearly identical touchdown percents. On third and goal, the run still holds up strongly. A called run is more likely to score a TD on anything from the 6 and in than a pass, which owns 7 and up. Again, not saying the strategy should be 100%, but there is real value to favoring the run inside the 7.
Never take a touchback on a kickoff you don’t have to. The expected starting field position on a return from 9 yards deep is still the 21, plus the opportunity for a big play easily offsets the times when you start from the 10-15, which isn’t a big cost for the opportunity.
In a trash tornado game, the biggest value for the wind goes to the team that has it in the first and third quarters, not the fourth. When the wind is strong it usually takes a possession or two for the field position to level back out. Those possessions occur at the beginning of the 2nd and 4th quarters, essentially giving the team with early field position the wind for about 2/3 of the game.
No numbers on this one but unless it's fourth down, stretching out the football is an extremely dumb move. At the goal line you can make a case for it if its 2nd or 3rd down, but there are very few situations where an incremental yard (nearly worthless) can be offset by the fumble risk of stretching the ball out.
Anything I may have missed here that you want to see, hit me up on twitter or in the comments and I’ll find a spot to address in a future article. I intentionally skipped fourth down decision making for this article. It’s too big of a topic. I previously wrote about it here and have an update to the article coming sometime this offseason.
May your holidays be filled with surprise on-side kicks, fourth down attempts and three wise timeouts.
Best diary ever
Whenever my team is down 14 and score, I say "It'll never happen but we should go for two here." Everyone thinks I'm stupid. Seriously, it'll never happen in a big-time football game. Down fifteen and not going actually makes me mad though.
Also, surprise onside kicks always work. It shocks me we don't see them more. Worse case scenario the other team starts to expect it and they get pinned to the line so they can't get downfield and block.
Another great job! I don't understand the field position thing in a trash tornado. Can you explain that further?
At the end of the first quarter, the team that just had the wind is likely to be in a positive field position situation. If its on offense, they have some time in the second quarter to continue that drive or possibly punt from a better spot on the field. If they are defense, the other team is likely to be backed up and will have to either punt deep in their own territory or spend the first part of the second quarter moving into a more neutral field position.
I'd like to see yout tackle wind data on its own one day. I wonder if cross winds are worse than length of the field. I wonder if bowls are different than open tunnels. I wonder how much it matters to an offensive unit to have the wind at varying levels. I wonder whether it's maybe worth giving up some plays at the end of quarters in order to get more time on that drive with the wind in your favor.
I'd also be interested in seeing how much wind was needed to drastically affect kicking percentages and thus the kicking decisions.
somehow we need to get hoke up to speed with this math.
Hoke is better at football math than like 90+% of college coaches.
Great diary. I think you should make an App for it, and only give it to Coach Hoke.
saying that the Ron Zook punt is not a good idea???
I love these posts. I wonder about the basis for the conventional wisdom that away teams play for the win and home teams play for overtime. I would like to finally let go of the 09 game at East Lansing when I was pleading for the 2 point attempt. I know Tate was gassed, but so was Sparty.
Overall, a very interesting post. Being an engineer, a couple further questions came to mind that would be interesting to look into:
Does taking a defensive timeout affect the rates of offensive success in converting a first down or scoring? In other words, not taking into account the clock, does a timeout benefit an offense or defense in these situations? This would mostly be something to take into account in issue 2 or 3 noted above for timeouts.
Also, is the advantage dependent on coaches/coordinators? Does it depend on unit ranking? Eg - Does a timeout benefit a 80th ranked offense more than a 5th ranked offense? (the same could be asked about defense)
Unfortunately, I don't have time to look at the stats for these questions, but the results would be interesting.
becomes my personal hero. Especially if it doesn't work and then they defend it with math.
I want to see the announcer's face when that happens. "But...wait, what? NO! This is all wrong? I don't...I mean...cut to commercial!" Cue exploding head.
Mathlete: Are you aware of a single occasion where a coach went for it in the "Down 14" scenario, at the NCAA level? At any level? I would love to know how it shook out, but I doubt this has ever happened.
Since 2003 I can't find a team that has intentionally done it. Three times a team has either faked it or botched a snap and run the fire play, but no straight up attempts.
I have always wondered if it were better to be up 3 at the end of game instead of ahead 4-6 points. My thinking is that if you are on defense the other team might adjust their strategy to play for a FG instead of going for a potential game winning TD. Have you ever studied anything like that?
Great question. Have thought the same thing a time or two. I quickly ran the numbers on teams that are trailing and start a possession with 2-4 minutes left in the game. Teams trailing by 3 (n=161) go on to win 21% of the time. Teams trailing by 4-6 (n=253) go on to win 25% of the time, a 20% improvement. While I can't dig to the specifics, it certainly appears that settling for the field goal trailing by 3 is a real concern.
My thinking is that if you are on defense the other team might adjust their strategy to play for a FG instead of going for a potential game winning TD.
Can we call this move "The Ferentz"?
If you have an average offense, then I agree with your 2-point conversion argument. However, if you have an offense that is pretty reliable at picking up 3 yards when needed, either in general or vs. a specific defense or type of defense, I would go for two after every touchdown the entire game (unless up by large amounts and not trying to run up the score.) The earlier in the game you start them, assuming you're going to score a lot, the less that variance is going to hurt you, and if you're a 60% 2-point conversion team, there's room to gain more points in high-scoring games.
Take the Northwestern game. Going in, you know it's going to be high-scoring, and you know that your offense should be relatively relaible to convert a 2-point conversion. If it's 60% (an arbitrary number but one that seems appropriate given denard robinson and the wildcat defense) you could be expected to gain 1.2 points over the conventional strategy, given that they scored 6 touchdowns. Furthermore, the probability of coming out behind (scoring less than 42 points) is only 17.92%. Accordingly, you have a good chance (54.43%) to outscore your opponent even if you get the same amount of touchdowns, and have a relatively low chance of falling behind given the same amount of touchdowns. And you have a 23.33% (which is greater than the fail rate) chance of scoring 46 points, which makes you either more than a field goal ahead if your opponent scores six touchdowns, requiring them to go for a 7th to take a lead, instead of a field goal, or leaving you only a field goal (or less) behind if they get that 7th touchdown. And this assumes that kicking an extra point is 100% successful, which we know in a college kicking game is a real overestimation.
Again, it's not something for every game, but if you go in thinking that the game is more likely to be a shootout, it seems best to go for two beginning with the first score of the game.
While I agree with you in theory, the 60% is too high of a number. The difference between good, average and bad on a specific play is much less than you think. Teams with a significant offensive advantage still only score on a third or fourth and goal from the 3 a hair over 50%. If you could get to 60% I agree that an aggressive always go two point strategy could be effective, just don't think 60% is possible.
Even if you get it to that level of success, you've still only got a 25% chance to come out behind. I also think it's tough to use 3rd-and-goal situations to compare 2-point conversion success, since there is more incentive to be conservative in that situation, as a turnover means 0 points instead of 4th down, and a bad penalty or sack means no viable 4th down attempt (if they're going for it on 4th down regardless) or a more difficult field goal (if they were going to be conservative.)
I find it hard to believe that a talented offense with good playcalling couldn't get it up to 55% on a weak defense. Relatedly, what are the run/pass split success rates for two-point conversions? Is run still favored? And do coaches run more or pass more?
This is an interesting idea but I don't think Northwestern was the right example. Their run defense was stout against us. They shut down Toussaint (25 yards on 14 carries) and we had some struggles on the goal line. We got lots of big pass plays on them, but didn't really dominate in the trenches.
but I think there are two key assumptions you're making that effectively undermine your entire argument. The first is the 60% number, and Mathlete has addressed that already: of course there exists a success percentage such that going for two will be a worthwhile strategy on any touchdown (until defenses adjust to stop you), but it's one thing to pick that number out of a hat and another to have it actually apply.
The other is related to the first. Two-point tries should generally be easier than other 3-yard situations, because in all other on-field situations, the defense must consider not only the possibility of a first down, but of a touchdown as well, and beyond a certain point on the field, the defense has significantly more ground to defend. (This ties in with running being more successful nearer the goal line: it's much harder to complete passes when the defense can drop seven in a 13-yard box.) A team that converts short-yardage opportunities from other parts of the field will not necessarily do so inside the 5; basing your conversion philosophy on your normal-situation philosophy will generally lead you to being more aggressive than the numbers support.
There is also another factor to consider: the two-point return. Unlike in the pros, a turnover on a two-point attempt is a live ball, which means that going for two opens up the possibility that your touchdown will effectively be worth 4 points instead of 6-8. It isn't a common occurrence, but it's a pretty significant penalty when it happens.
Hoke appears to be good at game theory. On the other hand when asked about it he plays it off as "gut instinct".
Do you think Hoke actually analyzes this stuff or do you think he is just aggressive by nature and (luckily for us) happens to instinctively make the right choice?
Whatever your choice do yor feelings change the way you feel about your coach?
I wouldn't be surprised if it was gut. The math helps quanitfy and in some cases clarify but the problem with coaches making dumb decisions is that they are often working off an old situational framework (3 yards and a cloud of dust era) that no longer exists. The framework used to be true but the game has changed, forcing decisions to change. Some coaches have evolved with the game and can trust their gut, others are still in a bygone era. A few are just idiots.
First of all, love the post as it summarizes so nicely a lot of nice strategic points.
However, I think the major problem with this approach is that sometimes math isn't enough. Unfortunately, the media plays a role in whether coaches stay hired or get fired (as we learned the hard way), and if a coach makes a decision that "looks" stupid and it goes badly, he will get pilloried by the media (and fans too), which may contribute to the coach's ultimate demise. Unfortunately, the playing the odds over a long period of time won't solve this problem; a coach may only face some of these situations once or twice in a career.
The perfect example is the beautiful "down by 14 in the fourth quarter" dilemma you mention. While the mathlete might go for two, the "media-lete" (not as good of a pun, admittedly) may not, knowing that in the very real case of failure, the media will look at it as a blunder. Of course, the coach could try explaining probability at the press conference after, but we all know from politics: "if you're explaining, you're losing."
In any case, it is all still very cool, informative, etc.; but methinks viewing coaching decisions simply through the lens of statistics is too narrow.
since it just means "coaches' decisions are often motivated by things other than maximizing their team's likelihood of success." Which is bad.
Of course that's true. However, it doesn't make it bad. For example, if the coach is a good coach, and wants to maximize his chance of staying coach, it may be a long-term good thing to lose a game because of bad decision theory but good media strategy. No?
Beyond "media theory" described above, there is also a "player emotional theory" that might need to be accounted for. For example, sometimes a coaching decision may be right by the statistics but be demoralizing to players, e.g., deciding you need to pull "gimmicks" to win games (such as surprise onside kicks). If a player gets it in his head that his coach thinks his team needs to pull stunts to win, that could work against the emotional level of the team. Of course, this could work the other way too ("hey, our coach is smarter than theirs!"), but either way, it's a factor to consider.
While I am a sucker for statistics and math, I think pretending that the "statistical odds" are the only thing that goes into decision making is overly simplistic, which is my real point. It's not bad to consider the big picture; indeed, our old coach seemed never to understand that the media (and managing them) is PART of his job, not just a needless distraction.
it's not saying "this is how coaches go about making decisions." It's saying "this is what a coach should do to maximize their team's chances of success." From the perspective of a Michigan fan, any time Brady Hoke makes a -EV decision because he thinks it will maximize his chances of keeping his job, it is a bad result for you.
And the thing that will ensure that a coach actually does keep his job is winning football games. That's why Belichick is still the Patriots' coach after going for it deep in his own territory against the Colts, and why Bob Stoops is still coach despite going for 2 down 15 and missing. And it's also why coaches who do conventional widsom-type things that are bad from a math perspective (Dave Wannstedt, Luke Fickell) etc., have trouble holding onto their jobs. Because they're costing their team games and no amount of media savvy can make up for a ton of 7-5 seasons.
Belichick and Stoops can get away with it, because they've won a lot of games already. When Belichick was in Cleveland, he got canned for not winning games, and even though it was more talent than coaching, because he didn't suddenly go from stupid to genius, his perception was that he was a failure there. His "wacky" by the numbers play there probably contributed to his image of a failed coach and contributed to an ousting faster than he could establish his credentials. Once you've proven your bona fides you can do more stuff, because you've earned the cred and leeway. But to get to that point, you can't have any big media gaffs that help contribute to your dismissal before you can prove your ability (because unlike Belichick and his pedigree, lots of times you don't get a real second chance).
It can work the other way too. Wayne Fontes spent years schmoozing and being likeable, helping offset the every other losing season, and helping keep him around a lot longer than someone the media pillored probably would have been.
and making GTO decisions helps you win.
Over a long period of time. And the situations don't come up every game to make them even out quickly, it's only after many games. So if doing the right thing helps you win 60% of the time, and the more conventional thing only 40% of the time, if you fail with the latter, you lose, but you just lose the game. If, by fate, you fail the first two times doing the unconventional thing, even if you can point and say "yeah, but the next 3 times we do it we're going to win" you've lost, and you've got a shitstorm to deal with too. If the odds go your way, and you win the first three times you do it, you increase your odds of staying. If it doesn't, you've GREATLY increased the odds your let go, because you've lost AND you have created an imagine of "dumb" mistakes (even if they're the right ones to make).
Look, I agree with agressiveness, and going with the percentages. It's just the idea that these decisions are made in a vacuum in an engineer's calculator, or a lab, that I don't agree with. There are outside factors. Like Coach says, there's team and situation to take into account too. The numbers are usually Country and team wide, against all opponents. It doesn't take into account time and situation and how teams are relative. A couple of years ago Joe Pa punted in our territory, and math wise it was stupid. Knowing we we're doing anything, he was going to get the ball back in good position, and very likely score (which all happened) because he had a much better team than us goes against the math. Sure, he might have been more likely to get it. But he didn't need a killing stroke in a game like that, and the risk of letting us back in it wasn't worth the value of the point likelihood.
It isn't a test of numbers and equations. It's dealing with a lot of teenagers. And failure/success risks momentum and emotional swings, both ways. I know you'd like to see Poker Pro's all play by the numbers (which, why not just have computers do it then), but there's a human element, people making mistakes, reading people, situation, and out and out doing the unexpected to go against the numbers and catch someone off guard. A computer may be better at winning at chess, but I don't think anyone wants to pay to see that.
I think I agree, but one other tidbit to add on Down 15:
You take the uncertainty out of it for you, but you also take the uncertainty out of it for your opponent.
They may call their offense on the ensuing possesion much differently if they are up 7, 8, or 9. Especially depending on the coach, time, and timeouts left.
This is a very good cheat sheet to start from, but I think there is always wiggle room for contingencies. Eg., easier to justify "pinning them deep" if you are shutting them out in the 4th quarter rather than if it's a 50 - 51 barn burner.
What's annoying is when coaches reject this kind of logic as a starting point, and use some other bs justification on it's own.
The adjustments you would make on offense leading by 7 late vs 8 or 9 are much, much less than if you were trailing by the same margins.
If it's late in the game, it's best to know as soon as possible how many possessions you need. If you're down 15 and score, kicking an extra point means it's a 43% chance it's a 1 possession game and a 57% chance it's a two possession game. If you play it like it's a one possession game, and decide to kick deep instead of attempting an onside kick (because there are 4 minutes left and you have a couple timeouts, so good defense means you get back the ball) you might not find out until after you score with little time or no left that you were actually in a two possession game instead of a one possession game. If you go for two after the first score, you know immediately, and will now onside kick (or at least you should.) The opposing offense is going to play ball control up 1 or 2 scores late in the game, and will likely alter their playcalling very little between the two situations.
I noticed that the Lions yesterday did just what Mathlete suggests. They burned their last two timeouts with between 2 and 3 minutes left while they were on defense. I pondered that they might want to save at least one for their possible last drive, but they didn't. Fortunately, Oakland's third down pass was slightly overthrown, and the rest is history.
With the clock not stopping after 1st downs. And it's nice to have one in your pocket to set up a FG. But really, especially down a TD, how many times do you see a team run out of time on offense (with a legit chance to score...not 80 yards away) if they're getting the ball back with close to 2 minutes left (or even a minute and change) vs. just getting stopped or turning it over? I think way too much emphasis is put on having lots of time on offense, when you can score pretty quickly. I'd rather have good plays and careful execution than rushed sloppy plays.
that Oakland also called an aggressive game at times. On both the fourth-down play early and the third-down play late, they passed instead of running. Neither play worked out, and traditional media people would be all over Hue Jackson and Al Saunders (who is, by the way, a long-time coordinator and head coach) for the "failures", but I haven't read that.
Setting aside my Lions-fan bias, I liked the calls. If Palmer puts either of those passes on target, Jackson and Saunders would be getting praised, and deservedly so.
And I agree chasing points before the 4th is a losing folly. But I wonder how this goes vs. the "go for two on both TDs" theory and crowd. I think the former gets overriden for the later in a lot of thought processes, especially around here. It seems in open threads and live blogs, people are screaming for going for 2 as early as the first half. Ignoring all the FG score possibility ramifications. It's seems "aggressive", but not knowing how the game will play out, seems like dangerously chasing points too early.
One question and one comment.
Comment: on the "never take a touchback", that claims seems to be fraught with selection bias. Just because balls returned from 9 yards deep end up at the 21 doesn't mean that if all balls were returned from 9 yards deep they would all end up at the 21. Or did you already account for that?
Question: What are the expected point values for first down and goal from each of the yard lines? I assume that it's a fairly linear decrease. What about for first down and 10 to go from the 11, 12, 13, 14, 15? My gut tells me that first down and 10 from the 12 is better than first and goal from the 9, but does the data back it up?
He said the expected yardline would be the 21. Worst case scenario, you get pinned at the 10 or 15. Best case scenario, you break a big return. It's a gamble in your favor. The other consideration is that if you are to drive the length of the field, what's another 5-10 yards compared to the 80.
In the scenario where you are down 14 I think it would be a great move to fake the xp because it would be so unexpected.
With respect to timeout usage, if the deficit is 3 or less, and depending how much time is left, one could argue that keeping a timeout in your pocket is more useful than another 30 or 40 seconds on the clock as it can give you extra time to get your field goal unit organized.
Yeah, but if you use the TO, those 30-40 seconds give you enough time to either a) leisurely get your field goal team on the field like you would in a normal game situation (How many teams call timeout before every field goal attempt?) or b) run a couple of plays to make the field goal closer. Once you get to the point where you need to call a TO in order to have enough time to get your FG unit on the field, the clock would have already expired if you saved a TO while the other team was on offense.
I was talking more about the play clock than the game clock. If I'm down 1 or 2 in field goal range with a reliable kicker, I'd rather have, say, 5 seconds and one timeout than 35 seconds and no timeouts. That way, I can call the timeout and have a little extra time to make sure the right personnel is out there, let my kicker get comfortable and hopefully eliminate the delay of game or false start you occasionally see on field goal attempts.
In general, yeah, you're better off using that timeout on defense. That's why coaches do that most of the time. I just don't think it's a hard and fast rule.
but if it takes less than 30 seconds to get your field-goal unit on the field, then it's better to have the time on the clock than the time out in your pocket.
Someone yesterday (Billick, I think, during the Lions-Raiders game) threw out 18 seconds as the time you need to get the unit on the field. Maybe it takes more time in college, but even if it's 28 seconds, that's still less than you'd gain from using the time out on defense.
But yesterday the Raiders (vs. Lions) did what Charlie Weis did against Michigan in the 2009 game. Up by 6 with 2:30 left on 3rd and 3 and the Lions with no timeouts, the Raiders tried to throw deep to ice the game. Incomplete pass, clock stopped, letting the Lions throw over the middle to start their drive from the 2 yard line because they had a free TO with the 2 minute warning. If the Raiders had run the ball, even without getting the first down, they take the clock down to 2:00 and take away the chance for the Lions to stop the clock.
Right after that happened, my friend and I both texted the message "is Weis moonlighting as the Raiders OC?"
First, I will pay between $5 and $20 for a "The Mathlete is My Co-Pilot" t-shirt and/or bumper sticker.
Second, Mathlete: almost all of your examples involve coaches being overly conservative when they should be more aggressive (not punting from opponent territory, not taking touchbacks, etc.). Have you run across any cases of the opposite, i.e., where the conventional wisdom is to be aggressive, but actually the math says be conservative?
I guess "chasing points" prior to the fourth quarter would be one example. I was also wondering about two other cases:
1. Throwing a play action bomb from the 50 or so right after a turnover. How many times have you heard announcers say something like "this would be a good time to 'take a shot'"? I'm assuming those plays have the same probability of succeeding right after a turnover as not, and given that those plays have a low probability of success, it might just be better to run your base off-tackle dive to pick up 3.5 yards or whatever instead of running the risk of an interception or getting behind the chains.
2. When you're on your own 1 yard line or so, often teams will throw from the endzone rather than QB sneaking or running the RB into the line (though they often do the former as well). Throwing from the end zone in general just seems like a bad idea since the following bad things can happen:
- Interception (true on any pass, of course);
- QB sack/fumble (true on any pass, of course);
- QB sack for a safety
- Holding/chop block for a safety
- Intentional grounding for a safety.
What say you about throwing from your own end zone, Mathlete?
1. This is some weird coach deal where there are certain places that you go for the home run. Don't really have anything to support it or reject it.
2. Brian put my thoughts about this in a mailbag at one point. From the 1 or 2 coaches should be very conservative, once you get even a couple yards out, return to play book as normal.